Following the breakup of Soul Coughing, front man Mike Doughty faced a dilemma: fade into an obscure silence, occasionally pocked with greatest hits anthologies and random pings on “Where are they now?” radars; or take on a personal voyage of investigation across the United States with little more than a guitar, home recorded CDs and an insatiable desire to play some songs. Doughty commits himself to the latter.
I’ll preface now by saying that this story is retold in nearly every account of Doughty’s lead up to a viable solo career. Pardon the repetition, but there is something clearly seductive about, after an unclean band breakup, saying fuck all to the detractors, jumping into a rental car and stitching together venues in a long tapestry of miles traveled and audiences entertained.
The result from Doughty’s footwork across the nation resulted in the pickup and popularity of Skittish, a pared down collection of guitar and vocal tracks buffeted with nearly zero accompaniment, recorded sub rosa while Soul Coughing was united and working on their (soon to be) final album. Doughty presented Skittish to Warner Brothers as a possible solo endeavor. Warner says no dice.
Fast forward to Mike’s trans-nation, one-man tour and Skittish has found life via Napster. His yeoman’s work playing gigs and pounding the pavement pay off; more asses in seats and more gigs lined up. ATO signs him to make some records, and the rest is history.
Sad Man Happy Man makes good on a commitment to honor the memory of his first try in the solo seat. This time around Doughty has managed to congeal everything sonically appealing about each of his prior albums into a discreetly distilled mass of beats and words that undeniably pays off.
Doughty’s foremost talent stretching back to days in Soul Coughing has always been his mastery with the words. Always beat-centric and brain thumping, his lines drop into a hypnotic rhythm that will remain stuck in your head an hour after listening. He keeps this trend alive in Sad Man, drumming up syllable-smithery that glues to the tongue: Champion time waster / Give up the claim, not chased nor chaser. Indeed, you’ve got to give your ear to anyone who can squeeze in a line like this: Time tells butter fat lies / sweet lousy cupcakes of lies. Later tracks showcase his power in describing an emotion by the evidence left in its wake of human action. He doesn’t sing about loneliness, instead he talks about listlessly rearranging cans in his pantry to spell out a poem.
Doughty’s Cellist, Andrew “Scrap” Livingston has completely unfolded into his own in Sad Man, no longer a vestige of whatever filler Doughty needs for each particular track. Smoky vibrato echos from strings in (I Keep On) Rising Up that push the track into a lively affair, daring a join-in on the refrain.
Exciting about this album is the final transformation from Doughty the solo lyricist to the Doughty the package, evidenced fully in Lorna Zauberberg. Here we have the simplicity that made Skittish so beguiling, yet encased in an envelope of warm string echos, and (gasp!) an occasional background sampler track that one can’t help but compare to earlier days fronting for Soul Coughing. And no, this comparison of his former band is not meant as a slight. He is clearly not caring about running away from a Soul Coughing sound, but rather running towards a Mike Doughty sound. What’s left is a sum of tracks that are full enough, but not overstuffed with fluff. Hear hear.
My love for you’s corrupt / Write down the words and then I’ll snort them up – Doughty, 40 Grand in the Hole
Hey, did I mention this album is available at Sweat? Well, it is. Go get it.